TIME psychology

Extraterrestrials on a Comet Are Faking Climate Change. Or Something

Just to be clear: This is a comet, not a spacecraft
Just to be clear: This is a comet, not a spacecraft ESA

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

Conspiracy theories never die, but that doesn't mean we can't get smarter about dealing with them

You’ve surely heard the exciting news that the European Space Agency successfully landed a small spacecraft on the surface of Comet 67P—or perhaps we should say “Comet 67P.” Because what you probably haven’t heard is that the ostensible comet is actually a spacecraft, that it has a transmitting tower and other artificial structures on its surface, and that the mission was actually launched to respond to a radio greeting from aliens that NASA received 20 years ago.

Really, you can read it here in UFO Sightings Daily, and even watch a video that seals the deal if you have any doubt.

None of this should come as a surprise to you if you’ve been following the news. Area 51, for example? Crawling with extraterrestrials. The Apollo moon landings? Faked—because it makes so much more sense that aliens would travel millions of light years to visit New Mexico than that humans could go a couple hundred thousand miles to visit the moon. As for climate change, vaccines and the JFK assassination? Hoax, autism and grassy knoll—in that order.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. If the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the myriad libels hurled at myriad out-groups over the long course of history indicate anything, it’s that nonsense knows no era. The 21st century alone has seen the rise—but, alas, not the final fall—of the birthers and the truthers and pop-up groups that seize on any emerging disease (Bird flu! SARS! Ebola!) as an agent of destruction being sneaked across the border from, of course, Mexico, because… um, immigration.

The problem with conspiracy theories is not just that they’re often racist, foster cynicism and erode the collective intellect of any culture. It’s also that they can have real-world consequences. If you believe the fiction about vaccines causing autism, you will be less inclined to vaccinate your kids—exposing them and the community at large to disease. If you believe climate change is a hoax, you just might become the new chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, as James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma soon will be, thanks to the GOP’s big wins on Nov. 4.

That’s the same James Inhofe who once said, It’s also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence… In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.” It’s the same James Inhofe too who wrote the 2012 book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. So, not good.

Clinical studies of conspiracy theory psychology have proliferated along with the theories themselves, and the top-line conclusions the investigators have reached make intuitive sense: People who feel powerless are more inclined to believe in malevolent institutions manipulating the truth than people who feel more of what psychologists call “agency,” or a sense of control over their own affairs.

That’s why the CIA, the media, the government and the vaguely defined “elite” are so often pointed to as the source of all problems. That’s why the lone gunman is a far less satisfying explanation for a killing than a vast web of plotters weaving a vast web of lies. (The powerlessness explanation admittedly does not account for an Inhofe—though in his case, Oklahoma’s huge fossil fuel industry may be all the explanation you need.)

Psychologist Viren Swami of the University of Westminster in London is increasingly seen as the leader of the conspiracy psychology field, and he’s been at it for a while. As long ago as 2009, he published a study looking at the belief system of the self-styled truthers—the people who claim that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by the U.S. government as a casus belli for global war.

He found that people who subscribed to that idea also tested high for political cynicism, defiance of authority and agreeableness (one of the Big Five personality traits, which also include extraversion, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism). Agreeableness sounds, well, pleasantly agreeable, but it can also be just a short hop to gullible.

In 2012, Swami conducted another study among Malaysians who believe in a popular national conspiracy theory about Jewish plans for world domination. Swami found that Malaysians conspiracists were likelier to hold anti-Israeli attitudes—which is no surprise—and to have racists feelings toward the Chinese, which is a little less expected, except that if there were ever a large, growing power around which to build conspiracy theories, it’s China, especially in the corner of the world in which Malaysia finds itself.

The antisemitic Malaysians also tended to score higher on measures of right-wing authoritarianism and social domination—which is a feature of almost all persecution of out-groups. More important—as other studies have shown—they were likelier to believe in conspiracy theories in general, meaning that the cause-effect sequence here may be a particular temperament looking for any appealing conspiracy, as opposed to a particular conspiracy appealing to any old temperament. People who purchased Jewish domination also liked climate change hoaxes.

Finally, as with so many things, the Internet has been both potentiator and vector for conspiracy fictions. Time was, you needed a misinformed town crier or a person-to-person whispering campaign to get a good rumor started. Now the fabrications spread instantly, and your search engine lets you set your filter for your conspiracy of choice.

None of this excuses willful numbskullery. And none of it excuses our indulgence in the sugar buzz of a sensational fib over the extra few minutes it would take find out the truth. If you don’t have those minutes, that’s why they invented Snopes.com. And if you don’t have time even for that? Well, maybe that should tell you something.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME National Security

Revealed: The Navy SEAL Who Killed bin Laden

Former SEALs preemptively revealed his name in protest of his decision to come forward

The identity of the Navy SEAL who shot and killed Osama bin Laden was a closely held secret until Thursday, when a site operated by former SEALs disclosed his name.

Robert O’Neill, a 38-year-old Montana native, was planning to reveal that he killed bin Laden in the May 2011 raid next week in interviews with Fox News and the Washington Post. But the former SEALs released his name in protest of his decision to come forward.

Read more at the Washington Post

Read next: Former Navy SEAL Who Wrote Bin Laden Raid Book Under Investigation

TIME cities

One World Trade Center Opens Its Doors

One World Trade Center
New York Financial Center at dusk Siegfried Layda—Getty Images

The 1,776-ft. building is the tallest in the western hemisphere

New York City’s revival from its darkest hour 13 years ago will be completed on Monday, when One World Trade Center officially opens for business.

The western hemisphere’s new tallest building, also known as Freedom Tower, will welcome Condé Nast as its first tenant. The publishing giant is making the 20th to the 44th floors its new global headquarters.

“It’s long anticipated and we’re looking forward to it,” Condé Nast spokeswoman Patti Rockenwagner said.

See TIME’s “Top of America” interactive

The 1,776-ft. high tower was initially set to open in 2006 but became fraught with delays and political grappling. It provides a statement of hope and resurgence on the New York City skyline after the attacks of 9/11 that destroyed the iconic twin towers of the World Trade Center.

“I’m like everybody else, looking at this place in amazement,” Kevin Murphy, who headed the team of ironworkers that helped piece the tower together, told TIME in March. “This is going to define New York.”

Read next: The Top of America

TIME 9/11

Woman Solves Mystery of Lost 9/11 Wedding Photo After 13 Years

Thanks to social media

For the past 13 years, Elizabeth Stringer Keefe has been trying to learn the identity of six people in a wedding photo that was uncovered in the rubble of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. On Friday, after years of sharing the photo on the Internet and social media, she finally got an answer.

A man named Fred Mahe, who attended the wedding and is in the photo, saw an article about Keefe’s search and sent her a LinkedIn message.

He told her that the photo was once pinned to his cubicle wall on the 77th floor of the second World Trade Center tower and — good news! — all six people in the photograph are alive and well.

“The story is Elizabeth, the story is persistence and trying to help someone she didn’t even know,” Mahe told ABC News. Mahe and Keefe have spoken on the phone and are set to meet this Monday.

Mahe has also been in touch with Christine Loredo, the bride in the photograph, who now lives in San Francisco with her husband and called the picture a “great memento of resilience.”

TIME foreign affairs

It’s a Huge Mistake to Back Rebel Groups

Mosul Iraq ISIS
Fighters from the Islamic State group parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle down a main road in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 23, 2014 AP

Mark Kukis is currently working with Andrew Bacevich on a forthcoming online course called War for the Greater Middle East. It launches Sept. 24 on EdX.

By definition, rebel groups do not answer to authority

President Obama’s first moves in his newly announced campaign against ISIS should be unsettling to us all as we mark another 9/11 anniversary. The Administration has clearly signaled its intent to make Saudi Arabia a key partner in training, arming and supporting so-called moderate Syrian rebels against ISIS. This is a terrible idea and should be abandoned. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have cooperated before in supporting rebel fighters — in Afghanistan in the 1980s. And of course the most famous of those rebels was Osama bin Laden.

Saudi and American officials seeking to stand up rebel forces against ISIS appear to mean well. They do not intend to create future terrorists. But the planners of this strategy in Washington and Riyadh delude themselves about the nature of the fighters they create. American policymakers especially tend to believe that rebels trained and supported by America will respond to U.S. direction and serve U.S. interests, functioning in essence as crude but effective instruments of foreign policy. This has been the consistent belief of American policymakers since the end of WW II and has led the U.S. to support unsavory outfits ranging from the contras to the Kosovo Liberation Army.

By definition, rebel groups do not answer to authority. They tend to take whatever arms, training and funding they can get from friendly governments and pursue their own agenda. Any rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and America can be expected to do the same. True, the interests of anti-ISIS rebels align with U.S. and Saudi policy aims in the sense that all camps yearn for the downfall of the horrific regime presiding now over large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Mutual interests likely end there, however. Rebel groups backed by Washington and Riyadh can be counted on to pursue their own aims even while they work with America and Saudi Arabia against ISIS.

What goals the rebels might have for themselves will be difficult to know. The fighters who will soon begin arriving at training camps in Saudi Arabia probably will not have a sense themselves of what the future holds beyond the fight against ISIS. But we can all be sure that nothing good will come of the effort apart from any blows these guerrillas manage to land against ISIS. This is because the region as a whole is in such turmoil. Even if the Syrian rebels depart Saudi Arabia as moderates, they will not likely remain so as they wage war in lands where extremism and instability prevail. The rebels backed by Washington against Muammar Gaddafi probably did not plan to begin fighting among themselves immediately upon the Libyan ruler’s downfall. Yet they have, plunging the country into a state of near chaos.

Rebel groups in the Middle East supported now by America and its allies in the region will undoubtedly sow something similar or worse for themselves and their government backers. Once set loose, they might become involved in terrorism, fight one another, prey on civilian populations or contribute to the next regional crisis. In fact, all those scenarios are likely courses for any such rebel groups given the environment in which they are supposed to operate. These are foreseeable outcomes of the policy now pursued by the Obama Administration and should be avoided. Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region have a role to play in confronting the menace of ISIS. But they should do so with regular military forces. Twice in recent decades Arab nations have rallied armies in unison to wage war against Israel. If Middle East nations can form a military coalition against Israel, they can do so against ISIS. And the Obama Administration should press them to do exactly that rather than creating yet more militant groups in the region.

Mark Kukis is currently working with Andrew Bacevich on a forthcoming online course called War for the Greater Middle East. It launches Sept. 24 on EdX.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: September 12

1. The long shadow of September 11th haunts our modern defense policy as well as our plan of attack against ISIS.

By Janine Davidson at the Council on Foreign Relations

2. Far from “The End of History:” Recent experience shows that democracy’s defenders have their work cut out for them. We should start by linking democratic values to our humanity.

By Timothy Stanley and Alexander Lee in the Atlantic

3. Climate change could remake agriculture. The world should diversify its crops.

By Sayed Azam-Ali in The Conversation

4. To transition from warfighting to the working world, America’s veterans need support from a broad range of government agencies. And that’s actually happening.

By Charles S. Clark in Government Executive

5. The Apple Watch will make people and computers more intimate.

By Walter Isaacson in Time

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME 9/11

Looking Up: A Photographer Captures World Trade Center Tourists

"What I wanted to do was capture peoples emotions of grief, despair, happiness, awe, longing, hoping — as many diverse emotions as there are people"

Photographer Keith Goldstein never found lower Manhattan that interesting to look at until he noticed where New Yorkers and tourists themselves were looking — up, where the new World Trade Center building towers over the city and the memory of 9/11 attacks.

“I think with this project what I wanted to do was capture peoples emotions of grief, despair, happiness, awe, longing, hoping — as many diverse emotions as there are people,” says Goldstein, who prefers to photograph the looks on bystanders’ faces without detection. To do this, he uses a small camera, often snapping his photos without even glancing through the viewfinder at his subjects.

“One would almost call it a drive-by,” he says, “except I walk by.”

TIME 9/11

Watch How One Company Is Keeping the 9/11 Survivor Tree Alive

It was found badly broken and burned among the rubble at Ground Zero

Perched at the tip of lower Manhattan, the 9/11 memorial is surrounded by skyscrapers, covered in concrete and has an elaborate system of subway tunnels running underneath. That’s not the most optimal conditions for nurturing the more than 400 trees that grace the site.

The trees are an integral part of the design of the memorial, symbolizing life and rebirth, and when fully grown will create a canopy of archways leading visitors around the area that memorializes the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In 2007, team members from Peter Walker and Associates, the firm that designed the 9/11 memorial, contacted Baseline Inc. and asked them if their technology would be able to help monitor the trees at the site and keep them as healthy as possible.

Baseline Inc. put their moisture sensors in with the trees while they were growing at a nursery in New Jersey and have continued to monitor them since they were moved to their new homes near the Freedom Tower.

Of all the trees, the Survivor Tree stands out for something greater. It was found badly broken and burned among the rubble at Ground Zero, and then nursed back to health in Brooklyn and replanted at the site. The new life springing from its limbs is a living reminder of both the past and the present, symbolizing resilience and survival.

John Fordemwalt, President at CEO of Baseline Inc., tells TIME that he and his team are committed to making sure that none of the trees, including the Survivor Tree, will die, “as a testament to the lives that were lost and the heroism of that day.”

TIME remembrance

See What Manhattan Looked Like Before the World Trade Center

Photos from the LIFE collection depict Lower Manhattan in the decades before the Twin Towers became part of the New York City skyline

Just because it’s become a cliché doesn’t make it any less true: the world changed on 9/11. And nowhere was that change more profound or enduring than in New York City.

For some, the scale of the carnage in Lower Manhattan transformed all of New York, overnight, from a place they called home to a ruin they had to leave behind forever.

For countless others, the love we always had for New York only grew stronger after seeing the city so savagely attacked. Our connection to the town, and to other New Yorkers, suddenly had about it a sense of defiance, tempered by a kind of rough, unexpected tenderness: the metropolis that had always felt so huge and indomitable seemed, all of a sudden, painfully vulnerable. In need of protection. Our protection.

Here, we pay tribute to New York — specifically, to the storied landscape of Lower Manhattan, where 400 years ago New York was born — in photographs made in the decades before the Twin Towers anchored the foot of the island. Wall Street, Battery Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Trinity Church, the vast, shimmering harbor — they’re all here: landmarks that, despite everything, retain their place in the collective imagination, captured by some of the finest photographers of the 20th century.

See more of LIFE’s collection of New York City photography here, at LIFE.com: Where New York Was Born

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